A Stab at Thai History 101

by Scott Coates

In an ongoing effort study Thai history, I ventured to the first Thai capital of Sukhothai with some family and friends. Located 450km N of Bangkok, Sukhothai was the Thai capital (or Siam, as it was known in the day) from the mid-13th century until mid-15th century.

One of Sukhothai's many temples
One of Sukhothai’s many temples

Covering 45 sq km of ruins, Sukhothai Historical Park is one of Thailand’s most celebrated sites, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sukhothai temple architecture is typified by lotus-bud stupas (pointed towers with various shaped bases), with many of the monuments having elephants inlayed in the stupa base. The shear number and beauty of the ruins is staggering. A bicycle provides the perfect way to explore and delve into this history-rich area.

Around the middle of the 13th century, King Jayavarman VII brought in Mahayana Buddhism as the main religion in the Kingdom. With this change, Buddha images were enshrined instead of Hindu ones. Shortly after this monumental change, smaller kingdoms and communities in what is now Northern Thailand liberated themselves, came together and established the Sukhothai Kingdom.

The third and most famous king of the Sukhothai period, Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng ascended the throne at the tender age of 19. He ruled during the kingdom’s most glorious period. During his reign, the Sukhothai Empire grew to it’s largest in history. The Kingdom stretched as far as Luang Phrabang in the northeast (Laos today), into the southern Malay Peninsula and all the way to Martaban in the west (now belonging to Burma). One of the most monumental and lasting impacts King Ramkamhaeng introduced was Theravada Buddhism as the main religion in the kingdom. Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng also acted as spiritual and temporal leader of his people. To this day, 95 percent of Thais practice this same form of Buddhism. By all accounts this period in Sukhothai history was a happy time, where citizens were free from forced taxes and traded in most anything they pleased. A fundamental cultural achievement was also introduced, the Thai alphabet. Comprised of 44 consonants and 48 vowel and diphthong possibilities has lasted hundreds of years and still stands today as the modern Thai language.

In the mid-14th century, there was a split in the mighty Sukhothai Kingdom. A northern Lanna kingdom was established, with Chiang Mai as its center and a southern kingdom emerged, with Ayutthaya as its center. Several consecutive kings tried to restore Sukhothai to its former glory, until it was finally annexed by Ayutthaya in 1438, 88 years after the establishment of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350).

The main Sukhothai complex is a huge fortress, surrounded by three walls and two moats. Today, inside this compound lie 21 historical sites and four large ponds, creating a surreal environment to explore. The area is well treed and a perfect refuge for thousands of chirping birds that live without fear of humans, as there has never been hunters living within the palace walls. Another 70 historical sites lie within 5km of these walls providing more than enough venues to satisfy the most diehard historical enthusiast.

A 55km drive north of Sukhothai leads to an equally interesting, but less-visited set of ruins, at Si Satchanalai Historical Park. Also a World Heritage Site, Si Satchanalai encompasses just over 7sq km and is surrounded by a 12m-wide moat. Most of these beautiful ruins are located on the banks of the Yom River, which eventually merges further south with several other rivers to become the Chao Phraya River – Thailand’s principle waterway running through Bangkok emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. Some sites date back at Si Satchanalai date to the 11th century, however, most were constructed between the 13th – 15th centuries.

The ruins at Si Satchanalai are in many ways, more charming than Sukhothai’s. Fewer visitors come to the area, affording you an almost private experience. Some of the ruins are larger than those at Sukhothai and less restored, leaving a more natural experience. The ruins are surrounded by a plethora of trees, making a relaxing picnic the perfect way to further enjoy any visit.

Si Satchanalai was part of the Sukhothai Kingdom and was traditionally governed by the crown prince of Sukhothai. In fact, most kings of Sukhothai were first rulers of Si Satchanalai prior to ascending the Sukhothai throne.

During the reign of Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng, Si Satchanalai flourished as part of the Sukhothai Kingdom. When the Ayutthaya Kingdom annexed Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai quickly followed suit, forming the northern border with the Lanna Kingdom. Si Satchanalai was also the main producer of glazed ceramics for the Ayutthaya kingdom, many of which were also shipped to the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia due to their high quality.

Upon heading back to Bangkok, we stopped at Ayutthaya (a favorite SA destination), the second great Siamese capital, and I found myself with a new appreciation and understanding of the architecture in the area.

Thailand is indeed a country rich in heritage and there is always more to explore and learn, even after living here for several years.